Educating Your Deaf Child
You are sitting in the doctor’s office and you get the wonderful news, you are pregnant. Eight months later you are in the delivery room, congratulations, it’s a girl! Life is wonderful, you take your baby girl home and she grows more and more every day. Then one day while cooking dinner, you drop a bowl and it makes a very loud sound, but you notice, your baby girl, didn’t even flinch. How could that loud noise not have scared a twelve month old? You start doing your own “tests”: talking to her behind her back, banging pans, etc. Then your doctor says, “I am sorry but your girl is deaf”.
Now what are you to do? How are you going to deal with this? How will she ever learn to read, to speak, to communicate with others, or to understand what you are trying to tell her? Many parents will experience shock, anger, self-pity, guilt, and feelings of sadness. They are sad that their children will never hear them say “I love you” or be able to hear music. And many parents grieve over their child’s hearing loss but once they recover from the shock, how do parents of a Deaf child decide which type of education their child should receive?
For many parents, this can be a very hard decision, especially for hearing parents, trying to decide which school will be more appropriate for their Deaf child. There are three main options: residential, mainstream, and charter schools.
Residential schools offer an ASL based program. All the teachers and staff use sign to communicate as well as all the students. Curriculum is set up for a Deaf child. Children who go to residential schools stay in dorms during the week and go home on the weekends.
Mainstreaming is where the Deaf child goes to a hearing school with use of an interpreter. They take many of the same classes as hearing students and also take special education classes as well. They go home to their family every night.
Charter schools offer a good option if mainstreaming and residential do not work for your situation. This school also offers an ASL based program it is set up for deaf education, but they go home every night.
A lot of parents don’t know the difference between a mainstream program and a residential one. Where do parents go for help? There are many resources out there but the most important resource has to be experienced parents and children that have been to Deaf schools and hearing schools. They could offer a wealth of information from their personal experiences for both educational settings. As these parents will soon find out, every one they ask will have a different opinion.
Choosing how to educate your child is a hard and confusing decision. I will show you why ASL based programs are better for a Deaf child than mainstreaming them into a hearing school. Before we get into the options parents have to educate their children, let us talk about Deaf culture and American Sign Language (ASL). We will also talk about some of the things parents have tried to “fix” their children and the difference between having hearing parents and Deaf parents.
Hearing people often think that being Deaf is a disability, but many members of the Deaf community do not see it that way. Deaf people identify themselves as an ethnic identity, and not a physical condition. Ben Bahan is Deaf and one of the authors of A Journey into the DEAF-WORLD. He had Deaf parents and went to Marie Katzenback School for the Deaf, a residential school. He talks about how the Deaf see themselves, “People who identify themselves as Deaf belong to a proud and distinctive sub cultural group known as the Deaf community”. “The uppercase ‘Deaf’ is used to identify those who are members of the Deaf community” (Bahan). They do not feel they are in need of a cure for their condition, they are simply a linguistic minority. The Deaf community has been forming for about the past 150 years evolving into a rich social life, with people who use American Sign Language (ASL) as their primary means of communication. To become a member of the Deaf community it usually means you are deaf, although many children of deaf adults, interpreters, and other people who know ASL often become part of the community.
American Sign Language (ASL) is a language that uses hands, facial expressions, and other bodily behavior to communicate both concrete and abstract ideas. Some signs are based on English words but ASL syntax and grammar are not based on English. ASL is the native language for many children who are raised by Deaf parents. Not all deaf people use ASL; most of these people are raised by hearing parents. Deaf people who do use ASL regard it as their natural language, which reflects their cultural values and keeps their traditions and heritage alive. ASL is a foreign language that would take about the same amount of time to learn as, say, Japanese.
ASL was developed by American Deaf people to communicate with each other and has existed as long as there have been Deaf Americans. Many people believe that American Sign Language is “English on the hands”. Some think it is a manual code of English or that there is one universal sign language used by the Deaf people around the world. American Sign Language is just what it says: American. Each country has its own version of sign language, some signs are similar but they are not the same. In actuality ASL is comparable in its complexity and expressiveness to spoken languages. It is not a form of English. It has its own distinct grammatical structure, which must be mastered in the same ways as the grammar of any other foreign language. ASL differs from spoken languages in that it is visual rather than auditory and it is composed of precise hand shapes and movements.
Another misunderstanding is that ASL is only capable of expressing the most basic of ideas. But in reality ASL is a complete language and can convey any idea: abstract, subtle, or complex because it has its own grammar and syntax.
ASL is something that you and your child should learn as soon as you find out your child is Deaf. This is something that Tom Spradley and his wife learned the hard way. In the book Deaf Like Me, Thomas Spradley, talks about his experience as a hearing parent with a deaf child. These parents were distraught when they found out their baby girl Lynn was Deaf. They tried all kinds of things to help her hear and talk. Everything but sign language, that is. They tried hearing aids, tried to teach her how to read lips, and they even tried an auditory trainer. But even with all these things they tried, Lynn could still not hear. They were in denial. You can’t make a Deaf child hear.
Before Lynn was finally introduced to ASL and graduated high school from the California School for the Deaf, Berkeley. Her parents had taught her to communicate by pointing, reading lips, and using flash card type items to point to when she wanted something.
“I wanted to go to Berkeley. My parents didn’t want me to go away to school. They wanted me to stay at home and attend a mainstream class at a nearby school. But I wanted more friends and teachers I could communicate with easily”. (Spradley 279) This is one of the many benefits of residential schools.
Deaf parents are often elated when they hear the news that their baby is Deaf. Having a Deaf child born into a Deaf family is often celebrated and signifies that the Deaf heritage of the family will be secure. Many Deaf families are proud of their genealogy and want it to continue. Most all parents, hearing or Deaf, want their child to be a reflection of themselves. Deaf children, with Deaf parents, come home to an environment that is well suited for them. Their house is wired so that lights blink when the door bell rings, beds shake when it’s time to wake, and where the telephone is on your TV and it blinks a bright light when someone is calling. They also come home to a home that has a language, a way to communicate. Ben Bahan believes that Deaf parents offer a better home life as far as communication goes, “Most Deaf children of Deaf parents function better than Deaf children of hearing parents in all academic, linguistic, and social areas” (Bahan 27).
A completely different reaction occurs when hearing parents find out their child is Deaf. Some parents may feel they have created a genetically defective child. Hearing parents not being involved with the Deaf community may find themselves at a loss as to what they should do. Hearing parents usually turn to “experts”, such as their doctors; doctors who are hearing and sometimes believe the child needs to be fixed. Parents are so busy grieving; they don’t realize that “countless children such as theirs grow up to become successful Deaf adults…” (Bahan 33). Many of these children start school with no language skills at all.
Growing up with a language at home has a huge benefit to the child. There are real advantages to residential schools. In the book Journey into a DEAF-WORLD Bahan states “When a Deaf child is born to Deaf parents they bring their Deaf baby home to a nurturing environment in which communication is naturally dependent on visual, not aural, cues” (Bahan 25).
This would hold true for Deaf schools too. Schools for the Deaf will most likely have more resources and information about educating the deaf students on site. “They are more likely to offer sign language classes for the parents. The teachers are more likely to hold a degree in deaf education. Class sizes would most likely be small therefore providing more one-on-one instruction” (e). They are set up for Deaf children; lessons are made with the needs of the students in mind. Their peers are also Deaf, which means friends speak the same language allowing for easy communication; “Which could help with their social skills, self esteem, and developing a healthier sense of self” (e).
They achieve more academically, are more likely to be involved in sports and other activities like Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. They are also more likely to be involved in student government, peer study-groups and volunteer activities in the community at large when the language comes easily. The children are exposed to the Deaf culture and values of the Deaf community and to the language of ASL.
There are also a few disadvantages. “There would be lack of exposure to a large diverse group of students (hearing or not) and I suppose a lack of exposure to the general population while in school”. “There will not be as many opportunities for the students to advocate for themselves in regard to their hearing needs in a school for the deaf and hard of hearing students, because there would not really be a need for them to. Developing self advocacy skills that we often have to use with the general population is very important” (e).
Many schools for the Deaf are residential schools, which mean their children are at school five days a week and only come home on the weekends. This is hard on the family to be away from each other for so long. Some people feel that the home is the best environment for any child. People who are against schools for the Deaf feel that they need to be home where the love, discipline, and nurturing are. However, it only seems to be hard on the parents and siblings at home. I have talked to many Deaf people who went to residential schools and they have so many positive things to say about it, it was a wonderful experience for the child.
I interviewed a Deaf man named John B. John has been hard of hearing since birth, but since he was born to a Deaf mother and a hard of hearing father, he has been in the Deaf World since he was born. His hearing got worse over the years and he eventually lost all of his hearing when he was about forty years old. But ASL has always been his first language. John has been teaching ASL to college students for about thirteen years now. John went to a Deaf school and enjoyed it very much. Although he went to a hearing school for one month with a hearing friend, he enjoyed his Deaf school much more. He had many more opportunities in his Deaf school than he would have had in a hearing school: he was able to date many girls, he was a leader in many clubs, and he could play sports as a first stringer. “I wouldn’t have been a popular student if I was mainstreamed in a hearing school, like I was in my school for the Deaf” (John B.).
John B. currently teaches at the Washington School for the Deaf and in a report from the Washington School for the Deaf (WSD) it states that “Federal law requires students with disabilities to receive an appropriate education in the least restrictive environment. Some believe that a mainstream educational setting for deaf students does not always represent the least restrictive learning environment” (WSD). Mainstreaming is a placement option in which children go to regular classes and take special education classes as well. However, Deaf children attending hearing schools need note-takers and well trained interpreters, isolating them from their peers. Free and easy communication that occurs between children is less likely to happen between a Deaf child and their hearing classmates. The learning that comes from that social interaction is also less likely to occur. Public schools usually have larger class sizes, usually over 25 students each. Many students will feel left out of what is going on with their hearing classmates, but being exposed to the hearing world on a daily basis is also good for children, since we live in a hearing based world. Now you can see why decisions like these are so hard.
The graduation rates at WSD compared with Washington mainstream schools are about the same, so the only real difference here is culture and communication, but for a Deaf person, that can be a world of difference. “According to educators interviewed by the Institute, the primary reason students attend WSD is for social development, which includes the opportunity to communicate directly with teachers, staff, and other students using sign language (WSD).
I interviewed another Deaf man, named Michael. He went to a hearing school and was mainstreamed. He went to regular classes as well as special classes. Michael does have some hearing and hearing aids do help him. He now works at a bank in the foreign currency department. Both of his parents are hearing, which may be why he went to a hearing school. He is very active in the Deaf community and attends Deaf events weekly. Michael and both of his parents know ASL and can communicate with each other. Since Michael had some hearing and has hearing parents mainstreaming worked for him. His parents learning ASL is the key. Many parents do not learn ASL and have a hard time communicating with their child or have no communication at all.
“A welcoming alternative to the traditional Deaf schools, mainstreaming, and oral day programs is the charter school” (Moore 172). Some charter schools are like a private school whereas they are owned and incorporated by the teachers and parents. Parents who send their children to a charter school usually have an active commitment to their child’s education and support the ASL based learning environment. Teachers and parents work together to ensure the best possible education. Charter schools combine the best features of mainstreaming and residential schools. The children come home every night but are involved in an ASL based program with their Deaf peers. “Charter schools are an exciting new development that augment students’ and parents’ choices” (Moore 173).
When all is said and done, parents need to remember a few core points. First, your child is a precious gift and an individual. Since children are individuals they need a wide variety of educational options to choose from. A method that works beautifully for one child may not work so well for another. The ultimate goal should be good communication skills, social skills, and an educational background that will allow the child to become an independent adult with a high level of English writing and reading skills. Parents and professionals need to be flexible. It might take some time to find the right method or combination of methods for each unique child.
The bottom line is that parents are the final judge in deciding where their Deaf child will attend school: mainstream, residential, or charter school. There are pros and cons to each option. If I had a Deaf child I would send my child to a School for the Deaf or a charter school. It is my personal belief that Schools for the Deaf or Charter Schools specifically for the Deaf are better than hearing schools and mainstreaming the children, as I pointed out earlier in the paper. Parents need to do their research for both sides before making a decision. They need to talk to parents that have Deaf children that have attended each of the school options. Then they need to do what is best for their child.
This is a paper I wrote in college.
English Composition II
May 18, 2012
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Authors’ Note: As a constant reminder that this book is about the “new ethnicity”, we follow the growing practice of capitalizing Deaf to designate the members and institutions of the DEAF-WORLD. We take it that a child who has not acquired spoken language and culture because of limited hearing is a culturally Deaf child, even if that child has not yet had the opportunity to learn DEAF-WORLD language and culture.
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Cover Image Only by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay